What do you do when your mother dies and you feel lost in the world, angry and hell-bent on self-destruction? You take a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Or at least, that’s what Cheryl Strayed did in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf). This is an epic journey across mountains and deserts—and along the way we are forced to endure snow and rain, intense heat and brutal cold—a passenger in the overloaded backpack that Cheryl Strayed calls “Monster.” While this is certainly a memoir—and we do spend time inside her head thinking about the death of her mother, her relationship with her family, and her troubled history with men—it is just as much a tale of wanderlust, the outdoors, and an education that only Mother Nature can provide.

Early on, Strayed (which later morphs into “Starved,” the letters on her necklace difficult to read at times) gives us a bit of backstory to help us understand why she is doing this:

It started with a bisexual, nymphomaniac girlfriend and went downhill from there. I know it sounds like fun—it’s the ultimate fantasy, a girl with powerful appetites. She not only liked to masturbate in front of me, but went shopping with me for sex toys, both of us flushed and anxious, our heads stuffed with cotton candy, our slick skin eager to be stroked. But then the cocaine came out and the LSD was taken and the next thing I knew she was sucking a guy’s dick in our studio apartment, not really understanding what the word “fluffing” meant, his photograph about to go out into the world, a swinging single looking for a partner. And I was somehow shocked at what happened. There were rules in place, believe it or not, and they were quickly broken. She pulled up her skirt in the back alley of a hotel restaurant, the hostess with the mostest, her blonde waitress friend down on her knees. She jacked up any guy that approached her on the dance floor, and my jealousy surprised me. So I brought home two girls when she was out of town, this opportunity that fell into my lap a once in a lifetime charity that I could not deny. Between the Aussie and the Brit there was only a blur of limbs and a chorus of moaning. The next morning it was all “please take a pair of complimentary sunglasses on your way out the door and thanks for playing.” I was the last fling of a pool hall diva dressed in skin-tight black from head to toe, cleavage and long legs and the sun came up once again.

I hadn’t hit the road yet. I was still trying to leave.

It ended, as all things did back them, the drama of youth, with screaming and tears—whatever had been there shattered into jagged fragments of innocence lost, intimacy turned out for the world to see, and nothing was special anymore.

A road trip was offered up by my Hacky Sack beach bum buddy. How could this possibly go wrong? We would head down to glorious Conway, Arkansas, work some crappy jobs and save up a few grand, buy a junker of a car and head out to California, the wanderlust running across our itchy flesh, eager to find adventure.

Conway was not the place to find it.

The first hint that things would not go well emerged when the plane landed, when my friend informed me that his parents were not expecting the both of us, just him it turns out, the prodigal son. Unpacking our bags, a lukewarm reception was making me sweat, and my bag of pot had disappeared. He had smoked it before we even left Chicago.

A college degree and extensive computer skills did not go over well in the Bible Belt—that kind of office work was for the women down here. There were factory jobs at $4 an hour, and those were the best gigs in town. My friend came home covered in lint—he worked with toilet paper and paper towels. I stumbled home with a stiff neck from looking over my shoulder all the time. I ate out of a vending machine, not realizing that talking to the girls that worked there was akin to fingering them in the back of a pickup truck. Their men didn’t like it. The lifers down in Conway liked it even less when I got promoted to my own assembly line, troubleshooting a massive machine of metal and gears, computer parts flowing down a conveyor belt, grease and hammers and tobacco spit at my feet. Soon, I avoided the break room at all costs. For my dinner I drove the borrowed family car to a nearby McDonald’s, my thirty-minute break at the factory the only time I was alone. It was a quick push of the gas pedal to a liquor store next door. I melted into the parking lot and sulked. Stuffing the ninety-nine cent double cheeseburger down my gullet, I sucked down a forty ounce, the foam filling my stomach. Often I leaned out the car and vomited it back up, a sad existence that only got worse.

I got fired from this dream job when I went home for Christmas, my parents unaware that I was falling apart, lost on the road. I repeatedly asked the girl in the office if I had enough days to take off, if I could go home to see my mama. Would I have a job when I got back? She said yes, you’re fine, you have two days to spare.

I didn’t. She had lied.

This lead to a day job at a pizza joint next to a nearby university, the best thing I could find. I became a waiter on the lunch shift, where they had a buffet—the college kids scattering their spare change over the scarred tabletops, laughing as they strolled out into the sunlight. My tips were pathetic and never made of paper. If I hadn’t been having phone sex with the ex-girlfriend back in Chicago on a regular basis—pulling the phone cord (that’s right, I said phone cord) into the bathroom, stretching it as far as it could go, as she rubbed between her legs, slipping fingers inside herself, coming into the mouthpiece, my shame reaching a new low—then I might have been able to save a few dollars. Instead, I was broke as hell.

At night, for fun, down here in Conway, Arkansas, I decided to take a ride with the manager of the pizza place, his girlfriend in the middle seat, as we sucked down beer and drove around town, cruising the dirt roads and looking for niggers. His word, not mine. He liked to find stray black kids and pelt them with rocks as he drove by. I swallowed my beer and muttered into the dashboard. He asked me to speak up, son. I told him it wasn’t right, any of it, the nigger talk, the rocks—his whole fucked up way of getting off. He dumped me in a cornfield with a couple of beers, and told me to find my way home. You’re a college graduate, I’m sure you can figure it out. As he pulled away his girlfriend turned around, looking out the back window, and I was relieved. I would eventually find my way home, I knew that much. As long as a truck load of angry black kids didn’t drive by and stone me to death. I smoked and drank, staring at the stars, barely remembering which way to head—the limited choices helping me to get back to town, it was only a left and two rights, I thought.

I didn’t want to be here. I needed to find my friend—we needed to get on the road—we had to get out of this town.

When the girlfriend pulled up in the pickup truck an hour later, I was not surprised. She apologized for her drunk-ass boyfriend, and we sat in the cab and drank more beer. She started to cry, showing me bruises, some of them fresh—pulling up her shirt, stretching a bra strap, unbuttoning her jeans. You could see where this was going. Her life was a mess, her boyfriend a racist jerk with no hopes of going anywhere, her sobs drenching my shoulder, and soon enough, her tongue was in my mouth. I fucked her from behind in the redneck’s pickup truck, a toothy grin stretching across my face. We drove back with the windows rolled down, panic starting to wash over me—he’ll have to smell it, he’ll have to know. I was a dead man, I thought to myself.

The next day at work, sick to my stomach, I walked in the door and he asked me to step into his office. This was it, he knew. I turned to glance at the girlfriend as she stood behind the cash register, her lips pursed, swallowing laughter, eyes sparkling with secrets. This was all a game to her. Instead of a fist in my mouth he stuck out his hand and asked me for forgiveness, apologizing for being an asshole. No hard feelings? I swallowed and shook his hand. No worries, bro, we’re good.

When I got home from work that day, the family scattered all over town—the father at the rail yard, the mother at a daycare center, older sister at the diner, the underage sister lying on the couch, one hand slipped into her jeans, her eyes rolling over me—I discovered that my buddy was gone. The straw, this was the straw—he had joined the navy and left me here all alone. My jaw hung open, the girl on the couch muttering something about a shower, peeling her clothes off as she walked to her bedroom, and everything felt like a trap. I sat down on the tattered living room couch, my feet on the faded rug, all lumpy and crooked. I pulled it back to fix the strange terrain, and I saw dirt underneath a worn hole in the wood floor, and a herniated root pushing through.

This was road tripping gone bad.

There was a bus station in town, a mile away. I grabbed everything I had, which wasn’t much—a handful of wadded up bills and a backpack—and got ready to hoof it into town. I didn’t stick my head into the bathroom and tell the girl, naked now, curtain pulled back, pale white skin and firm breasts, not eighteen yet, definitely not eighteen yet, I didn’t tell her I was leaving and give her a quick kiss, my tongue in her mouth. That didn’t happen. I didn’t lift the lid of a cookie jar high up on a shelf and steal forty dollars—that is a lie. I didn’t go to the master bath and pick up the lid on the toilet to pilfer a pint of Jim Beam that the father had hidden from his wife. He didn’t drink, so there was nothing for me to steal. I was committing no crimes on the way out the door—I was only surviving, trying to find a way out.

Boots on gravel, trucks whooshing by, the corn and dust swallowed me up. I walked, invisible, towards the bus station, bourbon on my breath, a cigarette burning down to singe my fingertips numb. I made my way out. I can’t say as much for the rest of them, and in my departure, I forgave them, and moved on.